Monthly Archives: October 2011

Tradition: Some Things Change, Some Things Remain the Same

Old meets new.

One of the first international campaigns, and one that has become a shorthand for international environmentalism as a whole, was to Save the Whales.  However, the initial attempts by the International Whaling Commission to regulate the killing of whales were dismal: improperly chosen international quotas, a lack of monitoring, and rampant defection meant that for the first few decades of its existence, the IWC permitted a fundamentally unsustainable rate of killing whales – to choose one specie for example, only 3% – 11% of the pre-industrial population of Blue Whales remains. As is usually the case, human technical ingenuity, including but not limited to the invention of the exploding harpoon in the 19th century, and the development of whaling vessels that functioned as floating factories, permitted mankind to change the environment (read: kill whales) faster and more efficiently than before.

Nevertheless, environmental movements in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged by the emergence of international environmentalism embodied in the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, with the US as a powerful ally, and with the votes of new non-whaling members, persuaded the members of the IWC to adopt a de facto commercial moratorium.  At the same time, given the dependence of some traditional indigenous communities on whales, member states included an exemption to the ban on whaling in the IWC, permitting Eskimos (among others) to hunt a limited number of whales under the current Schedule.

But things are more complicated than that: while it sounds romantic to imagine the traditional whale hunter, spear in hand, plying the waters for trade, the reality is that indigenous populations are no more immune to the allure of technology.  The Inupiat, for example, use powerboats and grenade-tipped harpoons to hunt.  While causing nowhere near the level of environmental impact implicated in the real transgressors of the whaling moratorium – the Japanese Nisshin Maru is currently the world’s last remaining factory ship – for some, this does raise questions about how “traditional” the practice is.

However, there are other, potentially more serious environmental issues at play here.  First, as indicated in this wonderful video on the practice, the practice of whale hunting is now – like many other forms of human activity – being affected by climate change.  Thus, another ostensibly traditional activity is under threat from the process of industrialization.  Second, as described by the EPA and other international regulatory bodies, whales are, by virtue of their position in the marine trophic web, likely to accumulate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), long-lived, bio-accumulating compounds that can cause cancer, developmental defects, and function as endocrine disruptors.  This is somewhat alarming, considering that, as indicated in the video mentioned above, the consumption of whales is shared by entire communities, women and children alike (confession: the thought of eating whales is – to me – a scrumptious one).  Could it be the case that we do need to ban whale hunting,  not necessarily out of some desire to impose our cultural preferences on other societies, but rather out of humanitarian concerns?

2012 and Beyond: Do We Need Another Kyoto Protocol?

Well, in about a month (to be precise: the 28th of November to the 9th of December), the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet in Durban, South Africa.  One of the major issues confronting COP-17 is the fact that the Kyoto Protocol “expires” in December 2012, and the international society still does not have a binding agreement for any emissions cuts after that time.

This has been portrayed in cataclysmic terms: for one example, the UK Guardian indicated that it would be the “death knell” for the climate fight.  The implication is that, without a binding agreement on whether, what and how to cut emissions, governments around the world would lose any incentive to curb the six main greenhouse gases (GHGs), plunging us into a world in which states burned oil and coal with abandon, razed the forests, accumulating GHGs in the atmosphere at exponentially increasing rates.

But I’m not convinced this view is correct.  In the first place, it’s pretty far from clear that the Kyoto Protocol – as an institution – has contributed meaningfully to international governance.  In the first place, the major GHG emitters, the US and China, are not bound by the Kyoto Protocol, and there is no reason to assume that any subsequent agreement would include them anyway (especially if, as is one suggestion, the post-2012 era is characterized by an extension of the current Protocol).

Second, and related, the effort to create in 1997 an agreement that would incorporate the political interests of post-Soviet, western European, and North American states led to an institution that was barely better than the lowest-common-denominator.  One datum I find interesting is that, technically speaking, the goals of the Kyoto Protocol – a cut in GHG emissions among Annex I Countries of 5.2% below 1990 levels – have been met.  However, as the figure below indicates, this goal has been met largely through the activities of Economies In Transition (read: post-Soviet) countries, most of which helpfully had a collapse in economy and industry immediately after 1990.  Meanwhile, overall GHGs have increased substantially since then, and the goal was so modest as to be laughable (the IPCC had originally recommended a 60% cut).  Would a new protocol be any more meaningful?

GHG Emissions for Annex I Countries

Third, and perhaps more encouraging, there is some evidence that countries are taking unilateral action to curb GHG emissions in more ambitious ways than are currently conceivable under the KP and the UNFCCC.  Most encouragingly, the EU launched in 2008 a plan called the EU 20 20 20.  Briefly, this consists of a pledge by the Union to cut GHG emissions by 20%, increase the proportion of renewable energy to 20% of overall energy, and cut energy consumption by 20%, all by 2020.  Ambitious, sure, but in 2011, the region had cut GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 15.5%.

So what does this mean?  Well, the failure of the UNFCCC COP-17 to negotiate a binding agreement post 2012 will not necessarily mean that countries will do any worse than they are now.  More significantly, a new agreement post 2012 does not mean that they will do any better.  Concern about the presence or absence of a likely meaningless international institution could probably be better spent elsewhere – say, focusing on generating domestic political will to adopt as significant regulations as the EU.  Without domestic support in the major contributing states, international institutions will be empty, and the hand-wringing over the second commitment period a waste of time.

The Limits to (Green) Growth


Birds Swarming a Wind Turbine

In The Not-So-Green Mountains (, an interesting thing is occurring: for the sake of clean energy generated by windfarms, Green Mountain Power is razing wild forest in the mountains of Vermont.  This exposes one of the central problems of the modern lifestyle.

Even the most environmentally friendly forms of energy come with some ecological – and often socioeconomic – costs.  In addition to leading to biodiversity loss and deforestation, windfarms can also be catastrophic for migratory species.  Unfortunately, as in the Red Sea/Rift Valley Flyway, the wind conditions that are propitious for energy are also used by migratory soaring birds.  See here (pdf, 1.5MB) for a detailed report.  Similarly, hydropower, while ostensibly cutting down on fossil fuels and GHG emissions, require the transformation of river ecologies, and contribute to eutrophication, and variation in microclimates.  This is not even to mention the dislocation, and occasional human rights violations, that can occur when local communities are displaced for dam construction (pdf, 53KB), as in China.

There are limits to green innovation.  While necessary, it will not alleviate our human impact on the environment.  Perhaps as much attention should be paid to reducing our demand on energy as there is to finding new sources.  In any case, assuming that we can innovate our way to no net environmental impact is deeply problematic.